“Ms. Graeff! Ms. Graeff!”
When you are a kindergarten teacher, you are a celebrity. All of the kids call out your name when they see you, with admiration, joy and expectation — not only the students who are with you for the 180 days of that particular school year, but also all the kids who have sat in your classroom over the years. That’s because kindergarten is like no other year in elementary school. For the students, everything is new and a little bit scary at first. For the teacher, we have the privilege of shaping a child’s identity as a student and their idea of what school is all about. There is nothing more dramatic than the change in a kindergartener from the beginning of the year to the end.
Teaching at a high-performing school like Rocketship adds its own layer to this dynamic. Unlike traditional elementary schools where students stay in the same classroom with the same teacher all day, our students rotate between classrooms and teachers throughout the day. Our rotational model means our kindergarteners must also master transitions from one space to the next, multiple times a day. They have to get comfortable with not just one teacher but three. We expect a lot of these little human beings, but with the guidance of supportive teachers and their parents cheering them on, they are always able to rise to the occasion. Over the years, we have continued to raise the rigor in our classrooms and the expectations of our students — and they have continued to surpass every bar we have set.
If you walk into a kindergarten classroom at the beginning of September, you should be prepared for anything. There will be criers, runners, screamers, and many, many bathroom accidents. In San Jose, we also have many students who are English Language Learners. The first language of these students and their families could be Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog or any number of other languages. Many students are adjusting not only to school but also to learning a new language — hence the tears, accidents and screams of “Papi, Papi, Paaaaapiiiii!!”
But if you come into a kindergarten classroom at Rocketship after the second week of October, something magical has happened. The kids have changed into silly, curious, excited learners. They have begun to understand a little more about their place in the world as students.
If you come into one of these classrooms after the winter holiday and into March, you will discover students who are beginning to ask questions and discover their own interests. You will see students who are choosing their own path as a scholar.
By the end of the year, these scholars have changed completely. They are confident and excited to learn everything they can. They have discovered a new world outside of their family and home and are able to explore it independently and with purpose.
The point in the year when all of this comes together is in May. This is when kindergarteners at my school, Rocketship Los Sueños, begin a project that reflects their journey through their first year of elementary school. This is when we get caterpillars in Room 218. This is when we start “growing” butterflies. Our classroom becomes a place where mysterious things happen. We watch as a tiny one-inch caterpillar grows into a four-inch monster and attaches itself to a little square piece of paper towel. It then spins itself a thin, brown cocoon, a chrysalis to hide its mysterious transformation.
As the kids watch this process you can see the wheels turning, the dots connecting. As they read and write about various animal habitats and life cycles, their eyes continually dart to that brown cocoon. They understand. They know that they are about to emerge as something entirely new, just like this strange bug that they have watched transform.
If you have the privilege to witness it, it is difficult not to draw a parallel between the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly and the change in a kinder from the beginning of the year to the end. They are helpless and scared as they enter on that first day, but they grow stronger as they learn new things and gain confidence in themselves. There is a period of dormancy as well. When they have gained many new skills but are not yet masters of any one. Then, they emerge triumphant at the end of the year, able to question and discover things on their own.
The butterfly project is also when I start to see how the parents have grown into their new role. In the beginning of the year there are many kinds of parents. There are the parents who are always in the classroom, on every field trip, asking a million questions. There are the parents who don’t yet feel comfortable in the classroom or asking questions. There are the parents who have questions about our rotational model, or how we use technology with young learners, or how we balance core subjects like math and literacy with enrichments like art, music, and physical education. Just as kindergarten is often the first time our students are exposed to school, it is often parents’ first exposure to school, and to Rocketship. But, at Rocketship, the partnership between the parent and the teacher is essential, so as a teacher it is my job to help all parents feel comfortable with my classroom, our school, and our model.
By May, when the caterpillars arrive, parents have also discovered their place in my classroom and in our school community. The parents who were always asking questions are now able to answer those same questions for others. The parents who had concerns initially now see how comfortable their kids are and have become more comfortable helping with a classroom project or joining us at read-aloud. Even the parents who once questioned our model now understand its power to help their student thrive. They have come to realize that all of the things that make Rocketship unique have made this change in their children possible.
Several times a year, Rocketship schools hold after-school exhibitions to show families what students have been working on. Each grade presents a project that demonstrates different standards that the students have mastered. At RLS, the kinder end of the year exhibition focuses on animal habitats and highlights our butterfly project. When the families come into our classroom that night, they see the STEM teacher leading the students in a song about the life cycle of a butterfly, the Humanities teacher helping the students present their posters filled with animals and plants in their natural habitat, and the Individualized Learning Specialist (ILS) from the Learning Lab guiding each student and family to the netted cage filled with the butterflies that we “grew.” Finally, parents can relax in their chairs and let the kids do the talking. Their metamorphosis is also complete.
Each kindergartener at Rocketship walks across the stage at the end of the year in their cap and gown to receive their kindergarten diploma. This great event is extremely important to the students and families. But I believe that the day we release the butterflies is the true “graduation” of our kindergarteners into the world. We walk, with as many parents as students, to a beautiful park next door to our campus. We gather into a circle and each say something to the butterflies that we have observed and loved for almost a month (a very long time for a kindergartener). Then we open the netted cage and dozens of butterflies fly out into the world.
Some kindergarteners cry, but most are very philosophical. They have come a long way in the span of one school year. As one kindergartener said to me, “We have to let them fly away. That’s the only way they will become a real butterfly.” Though he didn’t know it, I was thinking the very same thing about these amazing little humans. Though it is a difficult, I have to let them fly. Only then can they become real learners.
Chelsea Graeff is a kindergarten humanities teacher and grade level lead at Rocketship Los Sueños Academy, where she has been teaching for five years. She is also a graduate of the NAATE (National Academy for Advanced Teacher Education) program and completed her undergraduate degree at University of Washington. She enjoys writing and draws inspiration from her students as well as her 14-year-old daughter, Patience.
*This story was originally posted in May 2016.